Home Donors, Volunteers Organizations As Buttigieg Builds His Campaign, Gay Donors Provide the Foundation – The New York Times

As Buttigieg Builds His Campaign, Gay Donors Provide the Foundation – The New York Times

20 min read

Barely two months ago, when Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was rating no higher than 1 or 2 percent in national polls, he had a well-worn punchline he used as he pitched himself in living rooms and conference rooms where many of the guests were, like him, young, male and gay.

“I’m not asking for monogamy,” he would say.

It was fine to give to the bigger names in the race like Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker or former Representative Beto O’Rourke. He asked only that they save some for his historic candidacy, too.

Now, Mr. Buttigieg is looking for commitment.

After vaulting into the top tier of presidential candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination — going from “adorable” to “plausible,” in his own words — Mr. Buttigieg is building on the fly a nationwide network of donors that is anchored by many wealthy and well-connected figures in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political circles.

From more intimate cocktail parties on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the composer Stephen Sondheim appeared in March, to larger events, like a planned June gala at the Beverly Hills home of the television producer Ryan Murphy, the L.G.B.T. donor base is helping push Mr. Buttigieg from the margins of the presidential contest into the same moneyed circles that raised millions of dollars for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

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Top L.G.B.T. donors face no shortage of loyal allies among the 20 Democratic candidates. But Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy has struck an especially powerful chord with many of them. Though many said they believed they would see a gay man or lesbian become a serious contender for the White House one day, most of them had never considered it beyond the abstract. Mr. Buttigieg’s ascent has made a sudden and unexpected reality of something they thought was still years away, if not decades.

“There is absolutely no way to be cavalier about this candidacy — it is extraordinary,” said the television producer Richie Jackson, who with his husband, the Broadway producer Jordan Roth, hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Buttigieg at their New York City home this month.

The L.G.B.T. support provided Mr. Buttigieg a crucial early financial foothold before his candidacy began to surge after a CNN town-hall-style event in March, and now is poised to power a campaign staffing up nationally and in the early-primary states. His rise has threatened the donor allegiances that other candidates, led by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have established over many years in the L.G.B.T. world.

Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation is not central to how he has sold himself to the voting public.CreditScott Olson/Getty Images

And the flood of money does not come without risk. Though Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign announced last week that it would no longer accept contributions from federal lobbyists, and also said it was refunding $30,250 from lobbyists who had already donated, many of his gay donors have ties to the kinds of elite businesses that could tarnish his image as the poster boy of small-town, Midwestern America.

Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation is not central to how he has sold himself to the voting public — as a veteran, a Rhodes scholar and a government executive with the thoughtfulness and temperament needed to bridge the country’s bitter partisan divide.

But his sexuality became a much larger part of his political identity after he spoke this month to the Victory Fund, a group that supports L.G.B.T. candidates. In that speech, he described his struggle with coming out of the closet and challenged Vice President Mike Pence, an opponent of gay rights.

And his husband, Chasten, known for his prolific Twitter commentary, has become such a draw on the campaign trail that Mr. Buttigieg sometimes says he is “better known as the husband of Chasten Buttigieg.”

Now he rarely goes more than a few days between private events hosted by prominent gay donors. Through mid-May, he has nearly two dozen fund-raisers planned, including one in New York hosted by Andy Cohen, the Bravo host, and Michael Stipe, the former lead singer of R.E.M.

This week, he will be in Boston for back-to-back fund-raisers with other prominent L.G.B.T. guests. The first will feature Mr. Buttigieg in conversation with Brandon Victor Dixon, the Broadway actor who confronted Mr. Pence from the stage of “Hamilton.” The second is being hosted by Bryan Rafanelli and Mark Walsh, longtime confidants of the Clintons.

Brad Lippitz, a real estate broker, is already organizing a second fund-raising event for Mr. Buttigieg because the first he was part of was such a success. Mr. Lippitz said he had had every intention of staying neutral in the primary — until he and his husband heard the mayor address Equality Illinois, a gay rights organization, in February.

“We were blown away,” he said.

But the L.G.B.T. community is no monolith. And Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy is exposing tensions that have been papered over during the period of relative unity and common purpose that has taken hold since President Trump took office. The political priorities of gay men — especially the affluent white gay men who have mostly filled Mr. Buttigieg’s coffers — often differ from those of lesbians and transgender people. And the enthusiasm for his campaign is not universal.

“People are excited that there is, at least nominally, a viable candidate that is gay. That is uplifting,” said Alix Ritchie, a Democratic fund-raiser and board member of LPAC, a group seeking to empower L.G.B.T. women. But, she added, “I personally feel rather discouraged that the only attention being paid to Democratic candidates is a bunch of white guys. In terms of media coverage, the women are just being wiped off the map.”

In interviews, more than a dozen people who have helped the Buttigieg campaign raise money described an effort that has taken off with unexpected speed, at times overwhelming the campaign’s finance staff and volunteers. Small fund-raisers organized with a few dozen guests ballooned to banquet-size events with hundreds of R.S.V.P.s and host committees so large the names could not all fit on the invitations.

The mayor’s strength in the polls — he is rising quickly in early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa — suggests he is far more than just a niche L.G.B.T. candidate.

Though the L.G.B.T. donor base is one of the deepest and most reliable wellsprings of money for Democratic candidates, it is not large enough on its own to sustain a campaign.

Mr. Buttigieg raised $7 million in the first quarter, fourth most in the field. But many of the gay donors and well-connected volunteers assisting him are now hoping to tap into new networks — he has five events in the San Francisco Bay Area in one day next month — that will allow him to endure a competitive and crowded primary contest where the first votes are still nine months away.

“L.G.B.T. money has been the equivalent of seed money or angel investment,” said Alex Slater, a Washington public relations consultant who is helping to organize fund-raising events for Mr. Buttigieg.

Much of his support, especially from his L.G.B.T. backers, comes from Hollywood, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and other industries that could raise awkward questions for a candidate who presents himself as deeply connected to the concerns of working-class Middle America. Other candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have shunned the kind of fund-raising soirees where captains of industry mingle with A-list celebrities. Mr. Buttigieg is leaning into them.

“There are no pink dollar bills,” said Tom Sheridan, a Washington lobbyist who works on progressive causes and is helping the Buttigieg campaign raise money. “So when people start asking, ‘Where is the green coming from?’ that will be interesting.”

Mr. Buttigieg’s advisers are sensitive to this: Even before they announced the lobbyist ban, they had shot down proposals for having fund-raisers at the homes of lobbyists and in corporate offices. The job title of his finance director, Anthony Mercurio, is stripped of any obvious reference to fund-raising: national investment director.

The experience of seeing a gay man suddenly emerge as a viable candidate has led to conflicted emotions among some L.G.B.T. donors who had already decided to support other Democrats like Mr. Biden — who, many remember, endorsed same-sex marriage before his former boss, Mr. Obama.

Jon Cooper, a Democrat in New York who bundles contributions from friends and associates, said: “I’m with Joe. I love Joe. I really think he’ll be the strongest candidate.” But he admitted to feeling torn. “Part of me, as a gay man, will regret sitting out the first campaign by an openly gay man” for the Democratic nomination, he said.

Henry R. Muñoz III, who as the national finance director of the Democratic National Committee is officially neutral in the race, said his husband had been “entranced” after seeing Mr. Buttigieg in San Francisco recently, though he noted that many gay Democrats had allegiances to other candidates. He noted that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York had championed ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — and that Mr. Biden had officiated at his own wedding.

With many big donors spreading the wealth among several candidates, it does not appear the desire to ply Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign with cash is letting up. Michael Smith, the interior designer, and his partner, James Costos, the former ambassador to Spain under Mr. Obama, are hosting an event for Mr. Buttigieg — but not before they invite Mr. Biden to their Beverly Hills home for a fund-raiser early next month. They are also helping Mr. Booker raise money.

But the enthusiasm for the South Bend mayor is on a level donors say they rarely see. Andrew H. Schapiro, a Democratic fund-raiser in Chicago who hosted Mr. Buttigieg at his home this month with his wife, Tamar Newberger, said that “people were banging on the doors” to get in.

“The last time that happened for me was in 2007 and early 2008 with Obama,” Mr. Schapiro said.

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